Why Couples Can't Coast
An expert warns of the perils of living on autopilot.
Posted May 19, 2015
Your relationship is going pretty well. Long gone are days when you wondered whether you would ever be accepted and wanted. You’re in a solid partnership, whether living together or married. You’ve settled into a comfortable routine with each other of shared dinners, sleeping together, and maybe caring for kids.
Still, all is well. Or is it?
Some relationships have earned their right to coast. Through effort, partners have built a solid foundation based upon mutual trust and caring. Feelings are readily shared and difficult challenges around the in-laws or sleeping schedules are adequately managed. Conflicts are dealt with promptly and talked about in a kind, respectful way. Both individuals feel safe sharing feelings and desires. Maybe with the help of a therapist or couples counselor, they’ve learned to uncover and reveal their authentic feelings, heal the bulk of their defensiveness, and express their boundaries and limits in ways that preserve trust and intimacy.
Developing these awarenesses and skills is no easy matter. Yet how often do we coast rather than pay consistent attention to these crucial, intimacy-building tasks?
Beware of Going to Sleep When All Seems Well
As a psychotherapist for 35 years, I’ve observed that many couples have not developed the skills and mindfulness to probe deeply into what makes relationships thrive. Even when things are genuinely good, seeds of disharmony can sprout into weeds that contaminate the garden of love if not dealt with in a timely manner. Sudden separation or unexpected betrayals are often traced to a gradual buildup of discontent that was not adequately addressed and processed. When things seem to be going well—especially when the sex is good and hormones are flowing—it’s easy to let things slide. Many couples suppress feelings and ignore what isn’t working so well.
It is unnecessary to get alarmed about normal disagreements or to maintain a hyperfocus on the partnership, addressing every minor discontent or irritation. Sharing every detail of what annoys us may exhaust a partner and harm a relationship. Pick your battles wisely, rather than indulging every feeling of angst. (Self-soothing is an important foundation for healthy relationships, when you draw upon inner resources to comfort yourself when things don’t go your way.)
Yet we tend to neglect what’s important in our lives—our primary relationship. We might shy away from expressing our hurts and fears because we’re afraid of stirring up conflict or losing the connection. Or we might not fully take in our partner’s discontents, perhaps because it triggers our old shame of being criticized or doing something wrong.
As one client who resorted to an affair put it, “I kept telling my partner I needed more from him. He just didn’t listen.” Continual dismissal of her concerns prompted her to meet her needs elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t justify an affair, but it makes the betrayal more understandable. By not hearing her feelings as they were building, he fell asleep at the wheel, which eventually led to the relationship crashing. Avoiding a slippery slope toward disconnection requires being mindful of when we’re unwisely coasting rather than paying attention.
As I write in my book, Love & Betrayal:
“Whatever the specific conflicts, there may have grown an incremental dissatisfaction and distance. In the midst of the mistrust and miscommunication, our partner may have decided that he or she couldn’t take it anymore. Although we have felt abruptly betrayed, he or she may have felt more subtly betrayed because his or her wants and well-being were not being adequately considered. Perhaps neither of us was being honored and respected.”
Relationships get off track when we take them for granted and neglect to nurture them with “fondness and admiration” (as John Gottman puts it), enjoyable activities, and ongoing communication about what’s working well and what isn’t feeling so good. Finding a balance—a middle path between avoiding issues and overdramatizing them—we can continually nurture the love and intimacy we desire.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, which won the 2014 Silver Independent Publisher Book Award in the relationship category. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy.